Wednesday, July 12, 2006

Is Your Website Chasing Away Customers? or, How I Wrestled a Site Form

A couple days ago, I went to some printers' websites to see about getting quotes. (It's time for a DM self-promo campaign, yay!) As we all know, there are a couple of ways to get quotes. Most of us simply pick up the phone, even though many printers now use their websites to take orders, offer quotes, track shipping, etc. I thought I'd try using the online Quote Request forms.

Four aspirins later...

We've all used website forms. You enter some data in the fields, click Submit, and the site takes the action you want (special page access, service signups, member registrations, etc.)

I think both of the printers I visited used the same form script. It did not do that.

Both, upon clicking Submit, yanked my email client into operation and threw a New Message window at me. One filled with gobbledygook - the data I'd entered buried among various characters and HTML symbols.

It looked something like this: "Data&*element$%unreadable%%junk#(allwrapped@!up0in$&nonsense)@"

My eyes hurt just looking at that.

I'm sure some of you have seen this before. I have too, but this week's little episode made me think about the ramifications of something like this. What kind of message are you communicating, when your website's technology throws illegible surprises at its visitors?

You're communicating that you're not interested in making things easy for your customer. It's less work for you to make them take extra steps. Thing is, what will most people do when an email pops up in their face, no warning, no understanding?

Quickly close it I'd bet, thinking it's a virus or spam. Then you lost a potential sale. And you're the one who caused it.

Forms are not that hard to engineer. They should be a seamless part of your communication strategy - collect data automatically, so you can focus on the relationship with your potential customer. Unfortunately, writing can't help a bad form. But technology can.

In case you're thinking of building forms into your site (or you might happen to use a script like I've described), you can find everything you need at either of these websites:
Form Assembly - Create and Process State-of-the-Art Web Forms
Wufoo - Making forms easy + fast + fun

Also, if you're using a form to collect addresses for a newsletter, Constant Contact has a signup box script available for all its customers: Constant
(Pretty good email marketing solution too.)

Besides the confusion and subtle message I mentioned earlier, this kind of technology roadblock does a few other things to business communication:

Negative impression. I was a bit irritated at the messages popping up. To me, it conveyed a lack of professionalism. Not much respect for someone only asking questions. Now these printers could be models of professionalism in their person-to-person customer service. But thanks to an extra-step, no-warning email requirement, my impression is not glowing. Want to bet I'm not the only one?

No two-way channel. If you send an email, you expect an email back. If you submit a form, you expect a response page to be loaded. But with a bungle like this, there's a little twinge in the back of your mind. Questions that should be answered already from the website's automatic response mechanism now float to the surface. "Did they get it? Will they respond? What happened? Should I try to ask them? Would they get THAT?"

Lack of response. I sent those emails anyway. That was Monday. Not a peep on Wednesday afternoon. Frankly, if I don't hear back from any vendor I've emailed within 48 hours, they're not getting my business. (Good thing I don't know anyone from those companies.) My first guess as to why would be, "I doubt anyone there wants to deal with emails containing nothing but garbage."

It's little things like a badly-used site form that can severely hurt your business. Communication is a process - your message and your writing are a big part, but they're not the only part. Pay attention to your technology too.

Now I'm going to pick up the phone and get a couple more quotes. Hopefully an email won't jump out of the receiver.



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